Friday, July 15, 2011

In Her Wake by Nancy Rappaport

Title: In Her Wake: A Child Psychiatrist Explores the Mystery of Her Mother's Suicide
Author: Nancy Rappaport

Genre: Non-Fiction (Memoir / Contemporary / 1960s / Divorce / Suicide)
Publisher/Publication Date: Basic Books (7/12/2011)
Source: TLC Book Tours

Rating: Liked a great deal.
Did I finish?: Yes -- it really was un-put-down-able!
One-sentence summary: A Boston-based psychiatrist recounts the story of her parent's marriage, her mother's suicide, and the subsequent impact on her family's life.
Reading Challenges: None.

Do I like the cover?: Yes -- it features a picture of the author's mother and feels a bit retro to me, reminiscent, perhaps, of the 1960s setting.

First line: The day my mother killed herself, she had just finished preparing her house on Marlborough Street for the anticipated return of her children after a fierce custody battle with my father.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow for sure -- I think it could appeal to many readers for the myriad of angles Rappaport explores, and it's very low on the salacious scale.  I'm planning to buy a few copies as gifts for the Boston history buffs I know.

Why did I get this book?: Primarily the Boston connection.

Review: I don't read many memoirs, especially family-oriented ones: I'm prone to flash judgments and over empathizing; I can shake off fiction that rattles me but nonfiction sticks a little more.  Still, this Boston-based memoir attracted me so I started it with some apprehension.

Very quickly, I saw how courageous Rappaport was as she tackled the story of her parent's marriage, her mother's suicide, and her father's subsequent parenting choices since she, her father and stepmothers, and many of her siblings still live locally.  Her professional training as a psychiatrist showed through on every page: she acknowledged when her research frightened her family and offered many opportunities for her father to have his say about the story she was telling.  At moments, I was impatient with her fair-minded and even-handed presentation: I wanted her to be critical or judgmental -- even mean.  But in the end, she won me over (despite my muttering about her father and stepmothers) by going beyond simply recounting the days leading up to her mother's death.  She explored the facets of abuse, infidelity, mental illness, addiction, and grief that impacted everyone in her family in a readable way that didn't feel too technical or dry nor too salacious or torrid.  As her family has enormous connections in Boston's history, politics, and development (her grandfather was the lawyer for Vanzetti of Sacco and Vanzetti, for example) and Rappaport provides enough background to give the reader some appreciation of how publicly her parent's lived.

This is another book I've spent all week talking about to almost everyone I know.  While I've never had someone close to me commit suicide, I was still able to appreciate Rappaport's looks at her family and how this painful event (and the moments before and after) impacted all of them -- and see some of my own familial pain, however dissimilar, in her story.  This quiet memoir is moving but not soul-crushing, readable and genuine.


  1. I usually don't read a lot of memoirs like this one for some of the same reasons as you. However, this one does sound interesting. The fact that she does try to be fair in her presentation is what's drawing me more because so many stories like this don't. Also, I love when the history of a city is incorporated, so I just might have to pick this one up!

  2. Jenna: Rappaport's even tone is really to biggest draw. I think of memoirs like Cleaving and the sort of volatile, overly public emotional vomiting just breaks my heart -- I just imagine how isolating and hurtful her book must be to everyone in it. In this book, I so appreciated Rappoport's struggle to tell the story honestly and respect the anxiety and apprehension of her family -- even when I was exasperated with them.

    The tidbits about Boston are awesome -- all that urban renewal stuff from the '50s is so fascinating!

  3. This is something that I think I'd like, but for right now, I think I will have to hold off. I have read several memoirs and fiction titles lately that have to do with mental illness and mental afflictions, and have sort of started to become overwhelmed with it all. I do appreciate these stories, and learn a lot from them an a whole lot of levels, but after awhile, it gets depressing, you know? That being said, this does sound like a really interesting book. Great review on this one, Audra!

  4. Heather: Yes, I can totally understand why you wouldn't pick this one up now -- you HAVE had some seriously heavy reading lately. But I do urge you to consider it for someday in the future as it was very nuanced and muted without being dull.

  5. This does sound kind of interesting. I took a break from memoirs but I think I might be ready to tackle some more.

    In case I haven't told you already, I love your reviews.

  6. Wow, it sounds like her childhood was filled with grief. I love memoirs, so I'm jotting this title down.

  7. Teresa: Thank you!! You so made my Friday! :) Definitely consider this one -- I found it a lot less draining than many memoirs I've read.

    Kathy: I'd love to hear what you think of it if you do pick up. It is certainly sad, but not grindingly so, and I appreciated that.

  8. When I read the blurb, I thought "eh" - but your review has honestly made me want to pick this up. I do love memoirs, so I'll add this one - but may wait until I'm in a cheery mood. :)

  9. I am the author of In Her Wake . I am so pleased and honored that you read my book so so carefully and that you were found it relevant Audra even though you had not lost someone close to suicide. It is so interesting that at times you wanted me to be judgmental, you might have heard more of this in the first drafts but part of my journey was to find compassion for my parents and their short fallings particularly as I became a parent myself. I can also appreciate Zibilee being overwhelmed by memoirs on mental illness, I often have my criteria for judging a memoir whether I want to go to lunch with the author. I tried to be uplifting in my story without sugarcoating my loss. The Uplifting part is that we can find courage to go to those dark places and come out the other side. And how crucial it is to get support as we take this journey.
    Sincerely, Nancy

  10. jenna I will be interested if you do read my memoir if you see how the history of the city and the development of the West End (my dad was involved with this) has shadowing also of how different people feel they own a story.
    Teresa I hope you tackle this one. It is heavy lifting in terms of the subject matter but it is actually a celebration of our ability to find our voice.
    Picky Blurbs are SO hard to write and to capture it. The challenge is with any book to have people get hooked and that is why I like that Audra shared the first line.
    I have been reading lots of short stories and get that in the first paragraph you figure out if the story is compelling. As a mother it was necessary for me to try to make sense of what initially appeared that my mother had abandoned us but I came to appreciate was so much more complex.
    Stories that are not oversimplified but talk about our human effort to find meaning to me was the force for me to tell my story.

  11. I'm so glad this is one of those books that you want to tell everyone about!

    Thanks for being on the tour.

  12. Unputdownable! Love those books. :)

  13. Dr. Rappaport: Thank you so much for popping by and sharing your thoughts. I was really impressed with the grace you exhibited as you told this story and I think you really did achieve a book that isn't 'oversimplified' -- and yet, isn't gruesomely painful or exploitative.

    And I have to say, I love your criteria about whether you'd lunch with the author or not -- that's exactly the way I think about books I read!